Friday, October 1, 2010

A little less conversation, a lot more numbers please

A few days ago, Political Betting stalwart John Loony shared a very funny letter he had written to the BBC, complaining bitterly about their decision to allow Emily Maitlis and Nick Robinson to talk over the announcement of the Labour leadership result, first with Robinson's extrapolation (ahem) that David Miliband had won based on the result of the first count, and then with an explanation of the electoral college system. Here's an excerpt...

"Yet the presenters of the programme decided to start squawking and prattling all through the declaration of the second round, in a way which prevented us from hearing the result being declared, apparently to explain the workings of the Electoral College system and the Alternative Vote system. This was in spite of the fact that every single viewer was, by definition, interested in hearing the result; every single viewer was, by definition, already fully familiar with the way the EC and AV systems worked; and the fact that anybody who did not know or understand how the system worked was, by definition, not watching the programme in the first place. The presenters knew these facts before they started speaking."

Of course in one sense John is entirely wrong - while most people watching would certainly have been interested in hearing the result, that doesn't mean to say that they had the slightest clue about how the labyrinthine electoral system worked. This is an argument I've had on PB many times before - many posters there seem to feel that the BBC makes far too many concessions to its audience's assumed ignorance during election results programmes. But we political obsessives don't 'own' those programmes - everyone has a stake in the selection of a potential future PM, and it's entirely appropriate that a more casual audience is equipped with the information they need to make sense of what is happening. And if Nick Robinson felt strongly that he had advance information about which way the result was going, there was probably also a case for allowing him to communicate that to the viewers. So I'd suggest the real mistakes made were as follows -

1. The presenters' total silence during the result of the first count gave the impression that they were going to remain quiet for the duration. That maximised the irritation when they suddenly started drowning out the result, and then didn't stop. For my own part, I fully expected that the interruption was going to be very brief, and by the time I realised that I really was going to have to switch over to Sky I had already missed the entire result of the second count.

2. Any explanation of the intricacies of the electoral college system should have occurred well before the announcement of the result. Explaining it while the result was being read out almost seemed to be sending the patronising message : "this is why we're not bothering to let you listen, because as you can see it's all very complicated and you probably wouldn't understand it anyway".

3. Any extrapolations or other nuggets of information from Robinson should have been delivered by a caption on the screen, rather than by voiceover. This is standard practice during the live broadcast of the Budget, for instance - the BBC wouldn't dream of talking over the Chancellor while he's on his feet, no matter how incomprehensible the contents of the speech.

4. Robinson should really have done his homework better on how to extrapolate the result from the first count. He seemed to have only looked at the party members' and MPs' sections, and just assumed that David Miliband's stronger than anticipated showing there was being replicated in the unions' section. A much simpler and more reliable way of approaching it would have been to look at the percentage gap between the two brothers in the overall electoral college - I gather there were people in the hall who instantly said "Ed's won" upon hearing that the gap was just 3%.

Ryder Cup : In Europe, not run by Europe

I happened to catch Colin Montgomerie's speech at the (tremendously earnest, but that's golf) opening ceremony of the Ryder Cup, and I was bit startled when he began his address to the dignitaries with the words "First Minister, Mr President". Of course, it turned out he was referring to the President of the European Commission - Carwyn Jones must have been gutted, as he surely can't expect that many chances to enjoy the top billing in a pairing with Barack Obama.

It's perhaps not so surprising that José Manuel Barroso made time to put in an appearance at Celtic Manor, given that the Ryder Cup must be just about the only major sporting event in which Europe puts forward a unified team. What makes it even more of a phenomenon - truly an exception that proves the rule - is the fact that British people, and I suppose I'm particularly talking about English people here, never seem to have any difficulty whatever supporting the European team in full-blooded partisan fashion. Probably the main reason they feel able to do so is that golf's version of "Europe" is such a peculiarly British (and Irish) flavoured entity. Only once has the European home venue for the tournament been on the continent, and on only two occasions have there been continental captains. It's like a consoling biennial manifestation of a hubristic old fantasy that was never, ever going to be a runner in the arena where it really counted - "Britain leading in Europe".

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A primer in so-called "journalistic objectivity"

I've probably already said as much as I can usefully say about the cretinous attempts of Robert Menendez and co to set up a show-trial over the Megrahi affair. But reading the Wall Street Journal's accounts of the token Senate hearing yesterday, I was reminded once again of one little thing that's been nagging away at me about the US reporting of this affair. After my partial success with Dr Aubrey de Grey a little while ago, I decided I might as well chance my arm once again and send a direct query to the journalist in question, Paul Sonne -

"Can I ask why in your WSJ articles about Megrahi, the words compassionate release are always either put in inverted commas, or preceded with the words "so-called", or indeed both? Since it's a straightforward legal term, it seems to me that what you're doing is the rough equivalent of saying that Megrahi was found guilty of so-called "murder". Aren't you giving a misleading impression to your readers that the whole concept of compassionate release was a wheeze dreamed up for this particular case?"

To his credit, Mr Sonne did take the trouble to send a reply, albeit a brief one -

"Hi James,

It is only meant to designate that this is what it is called by Scotland, not by us as writers.

All the best,

Hmmm. Are you convinced? I'd suggest that what writers do and do not feel the need to madly disassociate themselves from actually tells you rather a lot about their biases, unconscious or otherwise. What do you think the chances are, for instance, of seeing a mainstream American journalist refer to his or her country's prisons as so-called "correctional institutions", or to the Guantanamo kangaroo courts as so-called "military tribunals"? If we're to take Mr Sonne's explanation at face value it surely follows that, whenever journalists neglect to place such a disclaimer on politically-loaded terms, they can be reasonably charged with having set aside their objectivity.

We interrupt this optimistic broadcast to bring you a snarl...

In line with my disquieting new habit of feeling something approximating to goodwill towards the UK Labour leader, I actually found myself watching a Labour Party Political Broadcast this evening without any discernible steam coming out of my ears. That is, until Iain "the Snarl" Gray popped up uninvited midway through (in a clumsily inserted Scottish Labour 'opt-out' from the main broadcast) to make this utterly extraordinary comment -

"Over the last three-and-a-half years, the SNP have broken every single promise they have ever made."

Whether or not it's true that Ed Miliband "gets" Scotland, it's depressingly clear that Iain Gray does not "get" the modern Scottish electorate, and probably never will. In fact, the new contrast with Miliband's sunny disposition is simply going to make Gray's relentless carping, sourness and pointless belligerence ever more unappealing to voters. It's his enormous good fortune to find himself in the position of being favourite to become First Minister almost entirely through no actions of his own, but he could yet throw it all away with his own actions if he carries on like this.

Rest assured that there will have been seven-year-old children shaking their heads in disbelief this evening, asking their parents - "have the SNP really broken every single promise they ever made?". To which the only possible response would have been "no, darling, that man's just being a wee bit silly". If a politician repeatedly uses such stupidly overblown rhetoric, there comes a point where it's a debased currency and people just completely stop listening. Has that even occurred to Gray? It appears not. I believe that's what's known as a lack of 'emotional intelligence' - a failing Gordon Brown often used to be charged with. That was actually slightly harsh in Brown's case, but not in Gray's.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Will the AV campaign herald a severe bout of Lib Dem wistfulness?

Although on the face of it the most dramatic moment in Ed Miliband's speech was his comment on Iraq, and more particularly the bizarre exchange it triggered between David Miliband and Harriet Harman, perhaps of much longer-term significance was the almost throwaway confirmation that the new Labour leader would be supporting a Yes vote in the forthcoming AV referendum. There had been a growing sense that the battle for this very minor reform of the voting system was on the way to being lost, but to some extent that was based on the assumption that Labour were happy to sabotage the campaign now that they were no longer directing it. The prospect of a Yes campaign encompassing both the Liberal Democrats and a fresh Labour leader who may very well still be enjoying a political honeymoon perhaps tilts the probabilities back to a positive outcome.

All the same, the more thoughtful Liberal Democrats will surely be reflecting tonight on their party's short-sightedness back in May. One of the main excuses for refusing to seriously investigate a progressive alternative to a Tory-led coalition was that it was unthinkable to countenance allowing Gordon Brown to remain in office, even for a brief period. That might have seemed to make sense in the feverish atmosphere of the moment - but the perspective changes considerably now that we've reached the point by which Brown would already have been gone. For the avoidance of four short months of discomfort, the Liberal Democrats now face the prospect of having to endure four-and-a-half more years of coalition with a party that the majority of members will increasingly regard as very obviously the 'wrong' partner. To say that the ad hoc alliance between Clegg and Miliband to push for modest electoral reform is likely to make the Lib Dem rank-and-file feel a touch wistful is something of an understatement.

Marriages are often blown apart by a yearning for the greener grass on the other side - could the same thing happen to the Lib Dems and Tories over the next two or three years? Intriguingly, Ed Miliband himself doesn't seem to think so, with indications that he's digging in for the full five year long-haul. He may of course be right, but it's far from a certainty.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's hard to criticise Ed Miliband for making common cause with the progressive bits of the coalition

So 72 hours and a keynote conference speech later, and it's still not entirely clear to what extent Ed Miliband represents an authentic break from New Labour. Iain Dale, for what it's worth, seems convinced that the younger brother's left-wing positioning during the leadership campaign was effectively a confidence trick, while much of the rest of the right-wing blogoshere is equally certain that we've just seen a return to a John Smith/Neil Kinnock-style Labour party. My guess is that Danny Finkelstein (someone whose analysis I usually don't have much time for) is closest to the mark in observing that, while Miliband is most certainly not "Red Ed", he is in fact slightly to the left of New Labour. If that's how his leadership pans out, my verdict would be - could be a lot better, but definite progress. It would be churlish to say otherwise.

Certainly it seems we can rest assured that the branding of the party as New Labour is now at a definitive end - Miliband used the term repeatedly in his speech, sometimes approvingly, but always in the past tense.

Despite my ambivalence over the content of the speech, I was slightly puzzled about Andrew Neil's assessment that this was an unalloyed dash back to the centre ground (what most of us in Scotland would call the centre-right), and that it was now hard to see where the differences are either with Labour's past or with the Cameron/Clegg coalition. Really? It was of course to be expected that there would be some distancing from the unions, but even just off the top of my head, can you imagine Tony Blair saying that :

* There should be a living wage over and above the national minimum wage?

* The gap between rich and poor does matter, and that the most equal societies are the most successful?

* The Iraq war was a mistake, was not a war of last resort, and undermined the UN?

* Civil liberties (or, as Blair used to put it, "that civil libertarian nonsense") have been too far eroded in the name of the war on terror?

And as far as any shared agenda with the coalition is concerned, that was to a considerable extent confined to the areas where the current government are on the correct side of the libertarian/authoritarian divide, and where New Labour were always on the wrong side. It's scarcely a departure from progressive values to accept that Ken Clarke may have a point about the futility of short prison sentences, for instance.

But I did have a number of concerns, and by far the greatest was the fair wind Miliband seemed to be prepared to give to Iain Duncan Smith, and to the havoc he might be about to wreak on the benefits system, leaving the lives of the most vulnerable wrecked in his wake. However, the extraordinary common ground between the two parties on this area has been a constant for a decade-and-a-half now, so I suppose we can't expect miracles. Tony Blair's humiliation in seeing his successor as Labour leader join mainstream opinion in denouncing the invasion of Iraq - and receive warm applause for it from the same party conference the former PM so very recently held in the palm of his hand - will have to suffice for today.

McTernan's loose talk in the presence of the lower orders

Tom Harris last night on John McTernan -

"John was his brilliant usual self"

John McTernan this morning, being interviewed by Andrew Neil -

"Just as I wouldn't ask my butler about policy, so I wouldn't ask Labour party members how to win back the south of England."

Tom can rest his case, I feel - the man is sheer class.

Incidentally, I left a comment on Harris' blog last night, which thus far seems to have failed to make it through moderation (although hope springs eternal). I should have taken the precaution of saving it, but it was broadly a response to this sentence -

"I say 'mistake' because my blood pressure goes up when I hear all the old tosh about Scottish politics being so different from politics everywhere else in the country."

It's a bit difficult for Tom to maintain the fiction that Scotland is not radically different from the rest of "the country", given the notoriously wicked - and yet directly elected - "separatist" government that lords it over humble souls like Harris and McTernan (when they occasionally drop in for a visit, I mean). I also made the point that, even if Harris is given the rather peculiar object of his heart's desire next May - namely Iain "the Snarl" Gray as First Minister - that will simply be yet further proof of a gulf between ourselves and the politics of the south of England. Labour may have edged into a one point lead in the latest Britain-wide poll, but that's as nothing to the 25-or-so-point advantage they routinely enjoy over the Tories in these parts. I think Tom is going to have to face up to it - for reasons best known to himself, he literally campaigned for Labour to step aside and allow David Cameron to take office in May, and deep down it may well be that he also now hankers after the impossible dream of a Tory renaissance in Scotland. How else is he going to see the political uniformity across "the country" that he so craves?

On a closely related theme, I was slightly puzzled at Tom's stated enthusiasm for McTernan's contribution to Newsnight Scotland last night, given that one of the key (and utterly risible) points that McTernan made was that Jack McConnell was always given free rein in policy terms by London Labour. Since when did Tom think that a capacity for Scotland to strike its own policy path is in any sense a desirable thing?

Bracing wind of open democracy is no humiliation

Scottish Labour's obligatory knee-jerk rant about the SNP's regional lists for next year's election -

"The release of this list is not only deeply embarrassing for the SNP, but it is a humiliation for Alex Salmond that his own party members have effectively deselected so many of his sitting team."

While I may have expressed dismay in the previous post about Anne McLaughlin's fate (and I take the same view about two or three others) I'm quite sure that's arrant nonsense on the part of John Park. Does he really think that the public would prefer the cosy 'closed shop' culture that brought us the expenses scandal to one where merit takes precedence over the privileges of incumbency? It's a brutal process in many respects, but one that ought to leave the SNP - on balance - in stronger rather than weaker shape going into the election.

Monday, September 27, 2010

What is it with politician bloggers?

I must admit I haven't been following the battle for placings on the SNP's regional lists next year very closely, so I'm unaware of what the battle-lines have been. But on the face of it, it's very surprising to see Anne McLaughlin - the party's most high-profile politician blogger - slip to just 8th place on the Glasgow list, ie. with essentially no chance of being re-elected to Holyrood unless she wins an FPTP seat. I presume (and trust) it would be well wide of the mark to in any way blame her downfall on her blog. But to look at it the other way round, it's startling that it appears to have been no particular help to her either, particularly given the very moving way she used it to further the campaign to keep Florence and Precious Mhango in Scotland.

But perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised - Iain Dale has used his blogging activities to build himself up as one of the most-recognised Conservative commentators in the UK, and yet incredibly that got him absolutely nowhere in his lengthy quest for a winnable seat at the last election. And of course there are strong suspicions that Tom Harris' blog was a contributory factor in Gordon Brown's decision to sack him as a minister, so much so that Harris has now declared that his hoped-for reappointment to the Labour frontbench would herald the end of And Another Thing. So it really does seem that for politicians with ambition, blogging is at worst a severe career hazard, and at best a superfluous hobby.

What desperate debating tactics tell us about the American right

I've just had a peek at Kevin Baker's blog for the first time in a few months, because I was slightly curious to discover whatever had become of that latest killer "Überpost" we were promised back in June. I didn't really think it could have come and gone without me noticing (I usually get a brief, tell-tale influx of American traffic) but I just wanted to be sure. As it turns out, not a trace of it, nor of any explanation as to its mysterious ongoing absence (he did say it was going to be somewhat delayed but I didn't think he meant four months) but it seems Kevin has been keeping his beady eye on the British media all the same. In a short post entitled "What Vapid Editorial Comments Tell Us About the UK", he gleefully seizes on the words of Lucy Jones, the amazingly liberal-sounding Assistant Comment Editor at the Telegraph. In a comments thread on the case of Teresa Lewis, a woman with an IQ of just 72 who was put to death in the US state of Virginia last week, Ms Jones had said this -

"I think it's morally, absolutely, categorically wrong to take another person's life. The details of the crime aren't going to make a difference."

Which any reasonable person would take as a fairly straightforward (and scarcely untypical) explanation of why she feels judicial murder - like any killing committed in cold blood - is morally abhorrent regardless of circumstance. But not Kevin. No, he somehow divines in her words - not quite sure where - the denial of the right to self-defence for someone who is actually being attacked...

"So, Lucy, if someone makes an attempt on your life, you should just lie back and think of England?"

Perhaps as a fond tribute to our old friend Ed "What The" Heckman I should at this point supply Kevin with a tutorial series of Wikipedia links on the subject of logical fallacies to help him understand where he's gone so spectacularly astray here, but I think on this occasion one word will more than suffice.

Desperate, Kevin. Desperate.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Council urgently seeks umbrella as tough choices are forecast

A few days ago I received a leaflet from my (Labour) local authority inviting views on how "high quality services" can be "delivered differently" in the "tough economic climate", a fairly obvious euphemism for "what should we cut?".

At first glance such open consultations seem all very laudable, but I think there may be more than a touch of cynicism at play here. Many responses will surely come from people urging that everything that doesn't particularly matter to them personally should be slashed, and therefore as a result of the consultation the council will conveniently be able to claim a measure of public support for just about anything they might decide to cut. Rather than seeking political cover in this way, a more meaningful consultation would have been to invite people to defend the services and funding that actually is important to them. The strength of feeling identified could then have informed the councillors as they do what they're actually paid to, ie. make the tough choices themselves and then take the rap for them.

Nice one, Katy Clark

This is how the MP for North Ayrshire and Arran ranked the leadership candidates in her vote -

1. Diane Abbott
2. Ed Balls
3. Ed Miliband
4. Andy Burnham
5. David Miliband

I'd have placed the younger Miliband ahead of Balls, but other than that, spot on. Any Labour MP capable of spotting that the emperor has no clothes and that David Miliband was worthy of last place (she was one of only four MPs to rank him fifth) deserves some kind of medal.

What would OMOV actually have meant?

One of the most spectacular political conjuring tricks of recent decades occurred in 1993, when Labour somehow managed to convince the media that a new system for electing the party leader which accorded wildly different weightings to different votes - and which, furthermore, allowed many people to vote several times - could perfectly reasonably be characterised as "one member, one vote". That illusion finally seems to have worn off, with many journalists pointing out the anachronism of a few hundred parliamentarians holding a third of the entire vote, especially now that both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have a straightforward OMOV system (although of course in the Tories' case this is only part of the story, since the MPs have the absolute power to draw up a 'shortlist' of two for the members to choose from).

So, by all means Labour MPs should be stripped of their outdated special privileges. But that still doesn't really tell us what OMOV would actually mean in Labour's case, or indeed what the outcome of this particular election would have been had it applied. If only full Labour members had voted, David Miliband would have been the clear winner. But how can payers of a trade union political levy that keeps the party afloat be reasonably denied their say? So perhaps OMOV could be interpreted as meaning that the votes of trade unionists and party members should be treated absolutely equally, in which case Ed Miliband would have won in a canter. But, there again, wouldn't it be an affront to Labour members if their full membership subscription gave them no greater clout than payers of a much more modest union levy?

I'm not sure there is an elegant solution to that dilemma, but if Labour ever want their internal elections to have any sort of democratic credibility, I'd suggest that at some point they're going to have to jump one way or the other.